Roof of the Kingdom
Friday 20 January 2012, 10:47AM
TRAVEL: With the full moon floating brightly in the cold sky, a large crowd of mainly local people, many in striking colourful hilltribe dresses, crowded around the long buffet table.
There they feasted on free sample plates of different northern food: pork-skin salad, very different curries rich in coconut, more salads with jungle vegetables and yet more pork concoctions.
On the bright stage, one beautiful northern hilltribe dance followed the other, accompanied by ethnic music played by a small orchestra seated on the floor, sounds not often heard elsewhere in the country.
As in Pai and Chiang Mai, the main thoroughfares of Mae Hong Son turn into
walking streets every evening. In the ad hoc market stalls that spring up, old hilltribe grandmas sell brilliantly-coloured spreads of stitched cotton handicrafts – little bags, hats and cushion covers.
Stalls by the side of the road are stacked high with large Burmese hand-embroidered dolls used in puppet performances.
By the side of lake in the middle of the small mountain town, a couple of folk musicians strummed guitars and sang easy, tuneful songs that they had composed themselves, filled with northern life and sung in the lilting northern dialect. Their CDs were sold wrapped in big dry lotus leaves.
The following morning, with the Burmese border just across the blue ridge of mountains to the west, the ‘City of Mist’, located in the far north of Thailand, woke up to a cool winter’s morning.
The populace were getting back to normality following the previous night’s feast and culture festival, held right in the centre of town.
Sitting in a café by the water, we admired the old shops, houses, and temples of unique tiered architectural design, all built of solid teak, well-weathered by time.
The aroma of coffee grown in those high lands infuses the cool air everywhere and the hot coffee itself is always strong and delicious.
Towering all around the old Mountain Inn Hotel, where we were staying, are silhouettes of huge peaks in which this haven of a town nestles comfortably.
We’d arrived in Mae Hong Son after driving 100 or so kilometres of windy mountain road from the plateau of Pai in the east. The narrow way had forced us to slow right down at the countless hair-pin bends, but also meant that we took in the breathtaking Alpine-esque views of mist-shrouded peaks.
That this part of Thailand was so mountainous was a most pleasant discovery. So was the cool and pure air, sought after by many tourists from the hot central plains far to the south – reminiscent of a similarly spectacular route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang in Laos, or perhaps the road through the central mountains of the Auvergne in France.
Steep climbs and descents were usually rewarded by welcoming rest stops, with all-round vistas of the misty blue mountains rolling away in every direction.
The next day we took the picturesque, smaller road back to Chiang Mai, which climbs, twisting and turning, through field after field of cabbages and other vegetables, and through evergreen pine forests to the very rooftop of Thailand, Doi Inthanon, cold and majestic at almost 2,500 metres high.
Direct return flights between Phuket and Chiang Mai cost approx. B5,000 return. Then, by road from Chiang Mai, there are three choices: some 250 km on the northern loop via Pai; about 370 km by the southern loop; or about 250 km via the peak of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. Mountain Inn Hotel costs approx. B1,200 per night.